What Is the Most Important Thing You Can Teach a Child?
Curiosity may be the means to an adventurous, exciting and connected life.
Posted June 23, 2021 | Reviewed by Chloe Williams
Before telling you what the most important thing you can teach a child is, come along with me around the world to discover why it is so significant.
In the small Maya town of Aguas Calientes in Guatemala, I asked Maria Elena, a highly skilled weaver in her 60s, what her dream was. “No one ever asked me that,” she replied. Then she went on to describe her dream of traveling and seeing the world. Astoundingly, even though she had no travel experience, no means, no passport, and no connections, she found a way to travel and demonstrate the traditional backstrap loom technique she uses for her creations. And my ongoing friendship with her is a source of joy and continued learning.
In Japan, we had the privilege of meeting Sakai-San, the last in his ancestral Samurai line and a very important and respected man. I asked him about how the Samurai code worked in his relationship with his wife and children. Our translator’s eyes were bugging out of his head as he whispered to us that no one ever dared to ask Sakai-San questions about his personal life. Then, surprised, he added, “He seems very happy to talk about it.” I will never forget Sakai-San’s wise advice about the relevance of the Samurai code in all our lives today.
On a small island in the Vanuatu island chain, the locals told us that their people used to be cannibals but now they are peaceful and, they added with a laugh, “we cooperate rather than eating each other.” I asked what role the women played in bringing about peace. “No one has asked us that before,” one of the women replied, and she told a fascinating story about how women were integral to the healing.
I asked the questions because I was really curious. Wherever I go, people always say to me, “You know how to ask the right questions.” But I don’t think it’s a matter of right or wrong questions. I am fascinated by other humans and want to learn more about them.
I watch in dismay when parents tell children that it’s impolite to ask questions. Unless inquiring of others is a cultural taboo, why shouldn’t they? When I return from trips to other countries, I often ask kids, “Would you like to know why young men in Myanmar become monks?” or “Do you want to hear about a woman who bakes bread in the sand in Tunisia?” I have never met a child who wasn’t curious to know the answers. And when they get older, they remember the young boys who tried out being monks and the Bedouin woman who baked bread in the sand. It moves me that they have never forgotten.
In a world roiling with chaos, violence, and intolerance, responsible parents and teachers know how important it is to teach little ones about respect, self-control, and being polite and kind. The hope is that they will grow up to be more balanced and accepting and improve the state of the world in terms of human interaction, self-regulation, and understanding.
But I think there is another human quality that is overlooked and that enables us to have an exciting, adventurous life. It is curiosity. It’s an innate desire to know about things and people and how the world works. Personal, interactive experience is quite different from listening to information that is imparted. It is openly expressing a desire to know more.
Most people simply don’t ask questions. Perhaps it’s cultural or comes from inherent shyness. Or maybe they were taught by their parents, relatives, or teachers that personal or cultural questions are intrusive. But from my experience, it is how I have made friends, gotten to know people better and understand them. It’s the way I have fallen in love with the great diversity, depth, and creativity of humanity.
In my humble opinion, honest questions should always come from a real desire to know more, not a need to extract information that can somehow be used to your own advantage. They should always be asked in an open and respectful way, and to accept another person’s unwillingness to answer. The preface that’s sometimes useful is, “May I ask you a question?” You might be surprised that the answer is almost always “yes.”
We may live and work in close proximity to others, yet know little about them. How was our curiosity squelched and why? Can we nurture children’s innate curiosity and need for connectivity? To me, curiosity allows us to break the bubble of self-absorption we live in, and share air with others around us. We learn about people, the way they think, their cultural norms, and how others who are different from us give us an opportunity to expand our own way of looking at things.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but do you know the complete adage? It’s “Curiosity killed the cat. Satisfaction brought it back.” And getting closer to other people by learning more about them is a source of deep satisfaction.